Felix Sanabria is either a humble fisherman trolling the waters off of Puerto Rico, or, if the government is to be believed, he’s a serious drug importer. Whichever he is, his federal drug conviction was reversed on appeal this week by the First Circuit in United States v. Sanabria.
At trial, the government relied on the testimony of witnesses who fingered Mr. Sanabria. The case turned on three transactions where drugs were exchanged. No photographs were ever taken of the person the government said was Mr. Sanabria — a person known as “El Chapo.”
At his trial, Mr. Sanabria’s lawyer tried to mount a defense. Mr. Sanabria is, apparently, dark-skinned. One of the witnesses who testified against Sanabria had told a law enforcement agent that El Chapo was light-skinned. At trial, that witness said that Mr. Sanabria was El Chapo. His lawyer thought that maybe the jury should hear about that prior description, and he tried to ask the government agent who worked the case what that witness had said. The trial judge wouldn’t let him on the theory that whether Mr. Sanabria matched the description of El Chapo was a collateral issue — it wasn’t relevant enough.
Mr. Sanabria’s lawyer also tried to show that a government witness against Mr. Sanabria was intimidated into giving a statement implicating him. The judge said that the witness’s motivation to give a false statement wasn’t admissible. And the witness’s prior statement about being intimidated couldn’t be used against her now, because that statement wasn’t made under oath (FYI, for the non-lawyers, statements can come into evidence when they aren’t under oath — in fact, it’s rare for a statement to be made under oath before it’s offered at a trial.).
Before the trial, a person who had met with Mr. Sanabria after he was arrested asked him if he was guilty. Mr. Sanabria said he wasn’t, that they got the wrong guy. The government asked that witness if the witness thought Mr. Sanabria was lying about that. The witness said he though Mr. Sanabria was lying. The trial judge thought that question was appropriate.
Mr. Sanabria was convicted and sentenced to fifty years in prison.
The First Circuit carefully went through each of these issues, showing how they are, basically, not consistent with the law. The Court found that these mistakes by the trial judge “unavoidably call into doubt the reliability of the verdict and the underlying fairness of the trial.” They reversed the conviction.
If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.